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Florence Rice Hitchcock and the Theory of the Soft Earth
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“Some historians think they are able to write about their long departed chosen subjects from the point of view of contemporary witnesses, in the spirit of time long past. I know I have no such powers, and my view is perforce from the present, based on my position and experience in this world.”
Henry Paul, “It Began with a Stone”

Florence Rice Hitchcock and the Theory of the Soft Earth explores ideas of interconnectedness and indeterminacy through the story of Florence Rice Hitchcock, a nineteenth-century geologist who has visions of twentieth-century science. In 2002, during renovations at Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History, a small wooden box was found in the closet of a storage room. The box contained letters and diaries written by Florence Rice Hitchcock, a relatively unknown geologist active in the mid-nineteenth century. Hitchcock is remembered for being one of the first women to receive a PhD in Geology in the U.S., but the discovery of her diaries has shed light on a previously unknown aspect of her personal interests and studies. In her public work and writings, she was concerned with the concrete, empirical evidence typical of nineteenth-century geologic study, but her diaries tell of a fantastic dream life and lifelong commitment to the development of an unpublished theory based on these dreams, which she called the “theory of the soft earth.”

Embedded in this biographical story is an idiosyncratic, queered history of scientific thinking from the Enlightenment through the late twentieth century, the evolving understanding of the role of uncertainty in how the universe functions, and the effects of humans on the earth and other species.

Created with and performed by Candice Salyers.

Subjects:
Geologists
Imaginary biography
Chaotic behavior in systems
Quantum cosmology
Transcendentalists (New England)